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Pell grants still available to students

Despite potential cuts and future changes, students can still receive their Pell grants for this summer and the 2011-12 school year.

On Friday, President Barack Obama signed the 2011 fiscal budget, which will be in effect until September and cut about $38.5 billion from the current budget.

Yet the Pell grant program, which provides financial aid to students who come from low-income families, will still offer students its $5,550 maximum award during the 2011-12 school year.

USF Director of Financial Aid Billie Jo Hamilton said the University did not originally offer the grant to students signing up for classes this summer because Obama asked Congress to cancel the 2011 summer grant completely in February.

“We (didn’t) want to tell students they’re going to get it, and they register based on that, and the last hour we take it away,” she said. “(This) week we believe the Department of Education will issue school rules on how to do summer Pell because … the program will expire July 1.”

A mass email about eligibility for the summer Pell grant was sent to students Friday.

“Students who have received a full Pell grant for fall 2010 and spring 2011 may be eligible to receive additional summer funding,” the email stated. “Because eligibility is dependent on the number of hours a student passes during fall and spring, we won’t be awarding until after spring grades are posted. If you are a current Pell grant recipient and are enrolled at least half time for summer 2011, check OASIS after May 16 to see if you qualify. No special application is required.”

Hamilton said students must complete 24 credit hours in the fall and spring semesters and take at least six credit hours in the summer to be eligible for the summer Pell grant.

Congress delayed Obama’s request to cancel the summer grant until next year, which if passed, could mean that the summer award would have only lasted two years, according to the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA).

“Last summer was the first year we had summer Pell (funds),” Hamilton said. “Last year was a pleasant surprise, but students got used to it really quick because they were upset when they thought they wouldn’t get it this year.”

Though those fears have been relieved, concerns are now on the future of the program.

The Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed a 2012 budget resolution Friday to reduce the maximum amount awarded to students during the 2012-13 school year. If the Senate passes the resolution and Obama signs it, the Pell grant’s maximum award would be reduced from $2,775 per semester to $2,090, according to the NASFAA website.

Hamilton said the reduced award is equal to the original maximum award before the program received stimulus funds through the American Recovery and Investment Act during the 2009-10 school year. The current maximum award is supplemented by about $690 in stimulus funds, she said.

Haley Chitty, director of communication for NASFAA, said the professional organization will advocate to keep Pell grant funding at its current level during the 2012-13 school year.

“The fight now is going to move to the 2012 budget where, again, Republicans have a budget proposal that would slash Pell grant funding … and Democrats have a plan to maintain the maximum Pell,” he said. “So I think we’re going to see this fight for the 2012 spending year as well.”

For the 2009-10 school year, USF was the fifth-largest recipient in the nation, Hamilton said.

Hamilton said in the 2008-09 school year there were 10,569 recipients, or about $32.4 million in Pell grants; in 2009-10, there were 13,745 recipients, or about $56 million worth; and in 2010-11, there are currently 15,103 recipients, $55.3 million worth of Pell grant funds used.

One of those students is Michael Nascarella, a junior majoring in engineering. Nascarella said he currently receives the maximum amount of Pell grants during the fall and spring semesters.

“That, and in addition to other scholarships, pays for my school. I currently don’t have a job because I take on so many classes, so it helps me pay rent as well,” he said. “Last year, I got it and paid all of my rent, groceries and gas, and I had a couple hundred left over.”

If the Republican-proposed budget goes into effect for the 2012 fiscal year, Nascarella said he will struggle financially.

“Either there needs to be more scholarships or I need to get a job,” he said. “I can’t imagine I’m the only person that is getting their way through college with scholarships. I know it’s going to affect a lot of people. At this time, you take what you can get, and now there might not be much to get.”

Pell grants are not the only financial aid services on the chopping block. Hamilton said the state Legislature is still debating funding for the Bright Futures scholarship program and university tuition levels. Nonetheless, she said USF is already working with students to secure fall financial aid.

“We don’t know where Bright Futures is going to be,” Hamilton said. “We don’t know for sure who is going to qualify for Bright Futures. This is kind of, for us, all over the place. We don’t know what tuition fees are going to be. That’s all we can do, (just) be informative. If we have to make a change, we’ll inform students.”

Susan MacManus, a professor of public administration and political science, said state legislators are currently trying to balance a $3 billion budget deficit before they adjourn in May. Education funding is “a huge slice of the budget,” she said, and thus is a target for cuts at the state level.

However, because states receive federal funding for education, the difference in fiscal years – the federal fiscal year begins in October and the state fiscal year begins in July – make budgeting difficult because “you don’t know what money you’re going to get, what form it’s going to take and when you’re going to get it.”

“It’s very difficult when different entities’ fiscal years don’t match up,” MacManus said. “That makes any kind of planning very difficult … It’s what the federalists argued about since the beginning of the country.”

For now, Hamilton said USF’s Financial Aid office will “operate on what we know today.”